Everything you need to know about Prosecco
Prosecco may be simple to say, but it is a surprisingly complex product. We guide you through the intricacies of this popular Italian sparkling wine, so you can sip like an expert.
The popularity of Prosecco seems to be showing no signs of slowing and, as the market continues to expand, so do the number of producers and the range of styles, not forgetting, importantly, the amount of vineyards planted to supply the growth – and hence, there’s never been a more important time to be a little more discerning about the fizzy phenomenon of this decade.
In essence, key to the character of Prosecco is the location, grape variety and the production method. And, to deal with the former first, the Italian fizz comes from north-east Italy in an arc-shaped area of hills and valleys that are found inland of Venice.
The area of production is large, currently spanning 20,000 hectares, and a further 3,000ha was added to the existing hectarage last year in an attempt to meet the rising demand for Prosecco.
However, even with a total of 23,000ha, the Prosecco region is smaller than Champagne, which covers 33,000ha in total, an area that is one third greater than Italy’s sparkling powerhouse.
Having noted that, the output from Prosecco is bigger, and in 2016 approached 475 million bottles, significantly more than Champagne’s average production of around 320m. (This is because the yields-per-hectare in Champagne are lower due to nature – particularly frost at flowering and bunch rot during harvest – as well as the strict regulation process in Champagne to ensure that the supply of grapes is roughly kept in line with the demand for the French fizz).
As we note below in more detail, the best areas for growing the grapes for Prosecco are the hills of Asolo (and Montello), Valdobbiadene and Conegliano, and, at the top of the quality pyramid, the slopes of Cartizze.
Also vital to the distinctive nature of Prosecco is the grape variety. In fact, the region took its name from this grape, which, until 2009, was called Prosecco.
However, as the producers of Prosecco-based sparkling wine in north-east Italy realised that a grape variety couldn’t be geographically delimited and protected, they registered the word Prosecco as a region, or DOC (which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata).
So, eight years ago, the region of production became registered in the EU as ‘Prosecco DOC’, and the grape variety used to make the fizz was named Glera – a somewhat ugly word, which, it is believed, was deliberately chosen to discourage producers outside the region from using the grape to make sparkling wine.
In short, anyone who grows the grape formerly known as Prosecco outside the DOC cannot use the word Prosecco on the label – that is, if they want to sell the product in the EU (and hence, you will find sparkling wines labelled Prosecco produced and sold in, for example, Australia – where the Glera/Prosecco grape has been grown for many years).
Significantly, Glera produces wines with a floral-fruity character, most commonly aromas of apple and pear, and sometimes acacia blossom too. When really ripe, Glera also yields flavours of peach and melon.
It should be noted that other grape varieties are allowed in Prosecco, such as Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, along with local grapes Bianchetta, Perera and Verdiso, but, by law, all Prosecco must be made with a minimum of 85% Glera.
The final critical aspect to the character of Prosecco is the production method.
Although different approaches are employed, the vast majority of Prosecco is made using the tank or Charmat method, also known as the Italian method, which sees the product achieve its fizz through a second fermentation in a large stainless steel vat, before it is bottled under pressure. This is in contrast to Champagne, which gains its sparkle within the bottle it is sold in.
The method of Prosecco production generally yields an aromatic type of sparkling wine, with a fruity flavour, a slight sweetness, and a pleasing but, in the main, rather simple character. It is also a sparkling wine that is designed to be drunk when it’s still young – very few Proseccos will benefit from cellaring.
However, for more information on the styles of Prosecco, which are connected to the production method, particularly the amount of residual sugar left in the fizz, as well as the exact source area of the grapes, see the following pages.
1. Production area
The Prosecco DOC totals approximately 20,000 hectares and the production area covers the northeast Italian territories of: in the Veneto, five provinces (Treviso, Venice, Vicenza, Padua, Belluno), and in Friuli Venezia Giulia, four provinces (Gorizia, Pordenone, Trieste and Udine).
Meanwhile, the Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG covers the Treviso province of Veneto on the hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, while there is also the smaller Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, produced near the town of Asolo.
Much smaller than the Prosecco DOC, the Prosecco DOCG totals approximately 6,600ha.
Superiore di Cartizze is a hill within the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG which is famous for producing the most concentrated expression of Prosecco – and often too, the sweetest. It covers 107ha and is home to the most expensive vineyard land in Italy, with an estimated value of €1.5m-€2m per hectare.
While Cartizze is at the top of the Prosecco Superiore DOCG quality pyramid, the Consorzio recently-introduced the Rive delimitations, which are named after particular sub-zones with distinct and high-quality terroirs.
Unlike DOCG Proseccos, DOC Prosecco can be ‘Spumante’ sparkling wine, as well as ‘Frizzante’, which is semi-sparkling, or Tranquillo, which is still wine.
2. Production type
The vast majority of Prosecco is made into ‘Spumante’ sparkling wine with 4.5-5 bars of pressure, which is slightly lower than Champagne, which commonly contains 5.5 to 6 bars.
To achieve this style of wine, Prosecco producers gently press the Glera grapes to extract a juice, which is then converted to an light aromatic wine, which is then transferred into special pressurised stainless steel tanks, where the addition of yeast and sugar promotes another fermentation.
Because the tanks are sealed, the carbon dioxide released during this second fermentation is trapped in the wine.
Once the wine has reached the desired alcohol level – usually around 11-11.5% – it is cooled and then filtered to remove all the yeast and by-products of the fermentation process, creating a clear and stable product.
Importantly, some of the residual sugar is kept in the sparkling wine to give it a bit of sweetness, and the levels differ according to the desired style – which are outlined on the next page.
Finally the Prosecco is bottled under pressure, to ensure that it retains its fizz.
3. Sugar levels
Prosecco DOC and DOCG sparkling wine has varying levels of residual sugar, which are indicated using the terms Brut to Demi-Sec.
Notably, the results of extensive Prosecco tastings by db show that the ‘sweet spot’ for this Italian fizz appears to be the Extra Dry category, particularly those examples with around 15g/l of residual sugar.
Drier styles of Prosecco can also be delicious, but they must contain enough of the ripe peachy fruit that makes this type of fizz so popular.
And be aware that, somewhat confusingly, Extra Dry is used to indicate a style of fizz that is sweeter than Brut, which is used for Proseccos that have 12g/l of sugar or lower – see the classifications below.
BRUT: when the sugar content is less than 12g/l
EXTRA DRY: when the sugar content is between 12 and 17g/l
DRY: when the sugar content is between 17 and 32g/l
DEMI-SEC: when the sugar content is between 32 and 50g/l
It should also be noted that by law, Prosecco DOC must have a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 11% and a pressure higher than 3 bar.
4. Finding quality
Although Prosecco tends to exhibit similar characters – aromas of apples and pears, a slight sweetness, and a refreshing sparkle – there are different levels of quality.
Over the years, the drinks business has sought to identify the best examples relative to their prices through our Prosecco Masters competition.
Using sparkling wine experts, samples are tasted ‘blind’ to ensure there is no prejudice as to winemaker or sub-regional source. The entries are then awarded medals from Bronze to Gold, or the ultimate accolade for exceptional wines only – the title of Master.
There are names that are rightly famous for high quality examples, such as Bisol or Nino Franco, but bigger brands and large-scale producers are also, due to state-of-the-art winemaking technology, able to craft clean and characterful Proseccos, as we’ve discovered from our extensive tastings over the past few years.
Or click here for a list of 10 of the best Prosecco for under £15 from this year’s competition.
And finally, for something a bit different, but also further proof of Prosecco’s huge appeal, click here to see a round-up of the most peculiar Prosecco-related products, from flavoured nail varnish and fizzy sweets to crisps and sausages…